Computing: Ubiquitous, Pervasive and Social (Human)

The publication of the book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It”  by Jonathan Zittrain opened up an important discussion about the form that the Internet might be adopting as a social and political phenomenon.  At about the same of publication the article “Ubiquitous Human Computing”  appeared in the Journal Philosophical Transactions A of the Royal Society.  Here Zittrain explores some special issues in greater detail. 

 

Zittrain appeals both to technologists and social scientists.  It is packed with extremely relevant information, insights and examples.  Zittrain makes the case that we are experiencing the advent of “ubiquitous human computing”.  The explanation is that computing devices and active sensors are so common and interconnected that the person itself becomes a part of the network, albeit not always by choice.

 

 

Not many years ago a computer company made famous the phrase that “the network is the computer”, meaning that the integration of the single unit into the network would make the computer indistinguishable from the network itself.  A similar process is described by Zittrain, only that now the human is the unit being aggregated into the network, to become blended and embedded. 

 

The process of embedding might happen in two ways.  The first is at the cognition level, which Zittrain calls the “distributed human brainpower”.  Human intellectual work becomes disembodied and can be tapped into far away from its location.  This signifies the possibility to convert the human knowledge worker into an unnamed piece of a new kind of assembly line.  The second happens at the bodily level, by way of the person becoming an entity attached to sensors that emit signals, in the form of “distributed human sensors”.

 

These changes, while highly interesting from a technical point of view, carry some problematic social and ethical issues, which Zittrain points to.  He proposes that we should make an effort to understand these distributed networks for what they really are and the potential benefits they might carry.  Understanding is the key to decide what is acceptable in terms of our social tolerance.  “These are not phenomena to be avoided so much as they are to be organized and perhaps regulated so that their ubiquity will enhance rather than debase the human condition” (Zittrain).

 

One issue that emerges as important is the impact in the way people work.  Yochai Benkler has focused on the effects of the “distributed human brainpower” in production and work environments.  He has extended the discussion to the Social Capital that people build up by using the network to perform knowledge work.  The case in point is  the New Commons, or “Peer to Peer Collaboration Networks”, that make it possible for a large number of workers to collaborate and produce products and services that match the quality and functionality of those produced using standard command based organizations (i.e. companies).  The most salient examples are of course Wikipedia and the Linux Operating System.  But many others exist. 

 

For example the HIT or Human Information Task, mentioned by Zittrain, in which a company may use human workers as a part of the information producing process, without distinguishing between computers and humans.  The technology is called AAI, “Artificial Artificial Intelligence (by Amazon.com).”  This seemingly nonsensical moniker makes a very important point.  Turing stated that if the response of a device is correct, then it can be considered intelligent, but “artificial”.  The “distributed computing brainpower” is a device in this sense, but doubly artificial by not being really a device but human work.  Zittrain points out that the implications for the meaning of “work” could be important.  The issues are the ability of the contractor to enforce total control, the inability to judge the “moral valence” or the work performed, and lastly the possibility of exploitation and the avoidance or regulations like the minimum wage.  In the end he expresses hope that the “human computing itself is lessened as artificial intelligence improves”.  This offers little consolation since we are still very far away from the day that a computer can faithfully simulate human intelligence.

 

Zittrain proposes an approach that tends to accept the technological development as intrinsically good and useful, but that regulation will be needed to avoid the excesses that are possible.  What is not well considered in Zittrains’ approach is that given the borderless nature of the Internet, those regulations and safeguards would have to be enacted globally, in a legal concert that has not been possible even in the early and comparable simple days of un-ubiquitous human computing.  How can a company be effectively prevented from establishing “distributed sweatshops” in unregulated sovereignties, or intelligence agencies from using monitoring to target an unknowing population living in a “rouge” country?  These issues go beyond the technology and start to pre-figure the need for a kind of global digital citizenship, where identification can be easily enacted, and the digital rights and obligations can be enforced.

 

The article provides a very much needed and insightful overview of the field of ubiquitous computing and a useful consideration of the social, political and ethical implications.  It does not go far enough in questioning the validity of the assumption that ubiquitous human computing is a desirable albeit somewhat socially awkward phenomenon, but it definitely succeeds in making the case that we might not be able to reverse this development, and will need the tools to control it.  The sooner we start a serious discussion about it the better, so that the “crush of the Panopticon” might be prevented.


References:

Zittrain, Jonathan, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (Yale University Press, 2008)

Zittrain, Jonathan, “Ubiquitous Human Computing”, in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, vol. 366, no. 1881, October 28, 2008, pp. 3813-21.

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